Sticky Walnut, Chester

Bit small, innit?

To my wife’s intense irritation, I have recently been spending quite a number of weekends in the North West. For the most part, this is because, in an inversion of accepted economic norms, their comedy promoters generally pay their comedians better than their southern counterparts. Added to which, a bewildering array of motorways means it is feasible to double up gigs over a geographical range that would be unthinkable in London. Liverpool and Manchester is a doddle, but I have recently managed three gigs in Manchester and one in Leeds on the same night, and last Friday opened Bolton and closed Chester the same evening. I mean, as Rishi Sunak so winningly pointed out in his conference speech last week in Manchester telling Mancunians HS2 was no longer coming to Manchester, before tweeting about it from his private jet – who needs trains anyway? What that man doesn’t know about politics…

Another highlight of the northern circuit, to my wife’s even more intense annoyance, is I tend to find myself at a bit of a loose end on Saturdays with both a day, and a stomach to fill. My usual routine involves getting up and going for a run, entirely so I can justify the money I’m about to spaff on lunch. As I was in Chester, the brilliant comic Danny McLoughlin, who lives nearby, suggested I complete a hattrick of Elite Bistros (having recently eaten at both Hispi and Burnt Truffle) by giving Sticky Walnut a visit. As Danny had also booked me the night before for the very lovely Alexander’s Live, I felt it would have been rude to refuse. Well, that’s what I told my wife anyway.

A little tip for anyone visiting the pretty little terraced streets where Sticky Walnut nestles – all the street parking is for half an hour, which as far as I’m concerned is a disgracefully short amount of time for lunch. However, behind the street opposite is a car park which costs 50p for two hours, which I would very much like to take all other car parks to, in order to educate them in something known as ‘appropriate charging.’ I slipped through a small passageway and into Sticky Walnut. I have received a delightful welcome in every Elite bistro I have been to (especially as Claire welcomed me both times) and this was no different, but aesthetically I thought this was the most pleasing of the bunch. Still plenty of polished wood and tasteful lines, but somehow cosier, perhaps by dint of being in a terrace.

At this point I realised that a number of items across the chain do tend to replicate themselves, which is not really a criticism when they are as good as the Welsh rarebit I had a couple of weeks ago at Hispi, but I was determined to try something different. Obviously this was a completely selfless move made entirely for your benefit, dear reader. My lamb’s breast was a succulent sliver of meat, nestling on a garlic puree that achieved the notable feat of making me like butterbeans. Presumably because they were crushed into a paste and covered with smoked garlic honey and sesame dukkah spice. This was a wonderfully moreish taste combination, the smokiness combining beautifully with the fattiness of the meat, but I’m afraid this is where my criticism comes in. The meat was dwarfed by the amount of fat attached to it – beautifully rendered though it was, and as the breast often is – but overall, the whole thing was just a bit…small. I bow to no one in my admiration for the cookery skill on display, but for £9.50, I did expect a bit more of it. To give you an idea of my reaction, I can do little better than copy the note I made on my phone – ‘salty yummy acid onion small fatty’. Maybe I am being harsh in this time of tight margins, but as it was only a parking space away from a tenner, and I hadn’t had any breakfast, I licked the remaining puree from the bowl a little dolefully. To cheer me (and my stomach) up, I ordered some focaccia, at which point four pieces of the most delicious, moist rosemary cake/bread arrived and all was well with the world again.

This also put paid to any worries about the size of what appeared to be a relatively small coley fillet which arrived next. Luckily, three other things stood in the way of further complaints. Firstly, I am not that au fait with coley, but this was one of the most perfectly cooked pieces of fish I have ever eaten, crispy skin, moist, translucent flakes melting away from one another – all the clichés. Like cod that had been to finishing school. Secondly, I had (on the waitress’s sage advice) ordered a plate of perfect truffle chips that had clearly gone on from finishing school to some sort of potato university. And finally, the sauce. My god the sauce. I think I could happily drink jugs of it. Apparently, merely chicken stock, lemon, thyme, parsley, a touch of white wine vinegar and A LOT of butter, but it elevated an already excellent dish to the absolute heavenly. I gibbered at the waitress about it.

After this, a poached pear with walnut praline ice cream and an armangac prune puree could almost be seen as a mild disappointment, but the addition of individual caramelised walnuts added such a pleasing texture that it was, in fact, the perfect palate cleanser.

My bill arrived, and seeing as I hadn’t drunk anything stronger than water and a cup of coffee, I’m inclined to think almost £60 is quite a step up from Burnt Truffle (£42) and certainly Hispi (£36.) However, the bottom line is – did I have a good lunch? To which the answer is an unequivocal no, I had an excellent one, and I will remember that sauce in my dreams. Not only do Elite Bistros clearly know what they’re doing, they have an eye for the perfect location – providing absolutely top-end, imaginative bistro food at (mostly) affordable prices. If you have one nearby, count yourself lucky. And use it. Like all good franchises, their outposts are individually brilliant, but also as a group, much more than the sum of their parts. There is a clear philosophy behind them, and it is a deeply pleasing one.

As I left, my cheery waitress wrapped the two remaining pieces of focaccia for me before I jumped back in a car that had stretched to the full quota of my 50p outlay, and headed to Manchester to park for half the time and 12 times the money. Then it was on to Darwen before hot-footing it to South Yorkshire to close a show in Holmfirth. Luckily, I saved the focaccia for the journey home, which meant I was able to make the three hour journey without stopping. A better man might have saved it for his wife, but after the lunch I’d had, turning up after three days, at 1:30am, with a couple of bits of foil wrapped bread might quite rightly have been seen as somewhat taking the p*ss. And I do enough of that for a living.

Oct ‘23

Asakusa, Camden

‘This is not an exercise in nostalgia’ – Gerard Langley, The Blue Aeroplanes

Nostalgia is a complicated beast. On one hand, it allows you to luxuriate in the comforting embrace of well worn pleasures, and food is a particularly evocative way of scratching that particular itch. Think Anton Ego’s ratatouille in ‘Ratatouille’, Proust and his bloody madeleines or in my case, my mother’s Boodles pudding

Of course, nostalgia can also move in more pernicious directions – the dumpling that sticks to the roof of your mouth while simultaneously transporting you back to the school dining hall. Or a misplaced idealism which harks back to some glorious rose-tinted past, often at the expense of the future. Which, as we have seen so clearly in recent years can lead to the delusions epitomised by Brexit – effectively cutting your legs off to make yourself taller. It is deeply ironic something predicated so much on turning the clock back has proved to be such an enormous waste of everyone’s time. And far more unpleasant than anything my school kitchens ever inflicted upon me. Except possibly the custard.

But surely nothing brings memories and sensation flooding back quite like music. It was for this reason I met up with my oldest schoolfriend – Martin, who has appeared here before – to go and see one of our favourite bands – The Blue Aeroplanes, who haven’t – at The Electric Ballroom in Camden. I won’t go into too much detail here, but if you’ve never heard them, do yourself a favour and buy ‘Swagger; from 1990 and ‘Beatsongs’ from ’91. You’ll thank me. And if you don’t, we probably couldn’t have been friends anyway.

Having shared countless school dinners with Martin, I think it’s safe to say out palates (and our wallets) have moved on a little from the eighties, so I booked a table for two at  Asakusa – a little Japanese place tucked away behind Mornington Crescent station which I’d been taken to a few years ago by another friend with exceptional taste.

Walking in is an exciting experience in itself. Asakusa may not win any design awards, and there is a slightly scruffy feel to the place, as though no one has really had time to bother too much about the décor when there are more important things to be getting on with. This is not a criticism – it feels hugely welcoming – but it does have slight the feeling of a hobbit hole, where pretty much every available space has been taken up to accommodate the diners, of which there were many on a Friday night. I was extremely glad I’d booked, and was a little perturbed to realise there were no seats left, until I was taken downstairs to a lower level I hadn’t realised existed.

Martin arrived shortly after like exactly what he is – a middle-aged man in biking leathers – and we set about catching up and the menu in similarly enthusiastic fashion. Oftentimes, a large menu strikes one as slightly worrying – can ALL of this be good? But it is something one tends to forgive in Asian joints, especially when, as here, the answer appears to be a resounding YES. Rather than dip into the extensive, not to say slightly intimidating bound volumes, we simply ordered off the sheet of specials – with a bowl of rice and some edamame for good measure – and kept on ordering.

This was special, heady stuff. First to arrive were a couple of chunks of meaty, smoky mackerel, a fish I have a complicated relationship with. Sometimes I love it, occasionally I find it a bit much. A good piece of smoked mackerel almost oozes on to the tongue, a bad one feels like – well, back to the dining hall. These were simply salted mini-fillets, grilled, served with a little white radish and stunning. Martin even looked up at me and just said ‘Ooh,’ which is probably a better description than any adjective I can come up with. A chicken karage was, as it should be, like (very) posh KFC and that is in no way an insult. The best takeaway in Hertford – Mr Tanaka’s – does a superb version, and this was at least on a par, and punched up by a decent and nicely dressed salad alongside. Scallops were almost unadulterated but for a sheen of the cooking butter and all the better for it – I would say meltingly good, but that is a description I have saved for the grilled salted salmon belly which must rank as amongst the most exquisite, moist mouthfuls of that particular fish I have ever tasted.

More edamame were ordered alongside an enormous can of Sapporo black – Japanese Guinness I guess – which was another new discovery and only shared because we were fairly sure it didn’t go with motorbike. The only slight duff note was a plate of simmered fatty tuna with dashi stock – still delicious, but the texture felt a little overdone in comparison to everything else we had eaten. Luckily this very minor quibble was swiftly addressed by some prawns deep fried in crispy breadcrumbs for which I run out of superlatives and which may even match my favourite dish from Mr Tanaka’s, (albeit without the legendary wasabi mayonnaise.)

By now, it was almost the band’s stage time. £98 (incl service) between two might seem a little stiff, but for this quality of ingredients, not to mention the way they were treated, it (almost) felt like a bargain. We tootled happily up Camden High Street, which served perfectly to remind me why I’m usually very glad to be inside a comedy club on a Friday night, and into the gig.

They kicked off with the first song from the new album, whose refrain ‘It’s fucking Dickensian, man’ would seem to indicate they’re every bit as pissed off about the country as I am, just with better tunes. Despite a history stretching back forty years now, they are still determined to keep pushing forward, and not be, as singer Gerard says, ‘an exercise in nostalgia’. I’m not sure the same could be said for me and Martin, but if anything’s worth getting nostalgic about, it’s excellent company, dazzlingly good food and your favourite band. And even if we might have been guilty of looking back, one thing is for certain – I’m very much looking forward to my next visit to Anushka.

Sept ‘23